Domain Tests v India
Cummins fights hard but India well on top
Stunning burst of four wickets in eight balls by Pat Cummins gives Aussies something to cheer but India enjoy a 346-run advantage
Andrew Ramsey at the MCG
28 December 2018, 11:00 PM AEST
It wasn't quite a jet-fuelled Dennis Lillee tearing into the mighty West Indies and felling Viv Richards with the famous final ball on Boxing Day 1981, but Pat Cummins' stunning spell brought an equally unexpected end to an otherwise cheerless day for Australia at the MCG.
Unfortunately for Cummins – who knocked over India's big three batters Cheteshwar Pujara (0), Virat Kohli (0) and Ajinkya Rahane (1) in the course of six rousing deliveries – his inspired effort is unlikely to stave off the defeat now staring at his outplayed team.
With Australia already requiring a record fourth-innings run chase to prevent India taking a 2-1 lead in the four-match Domain Test Series that concludes in Sydney from next week.
Whereas Lillee's rollicking rout that reduced the Windies to 4-10 after a poor Australia Boxing Day batting effort ultimately brought them a dramatic win, Australia finished day three of this third Test 346 in arrears of India.
The tourists therefore seem assured of victory if Melbourne's fickle weather holds over the final two days, and will therefore retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, as well as eye an historic first series win in Australia.
But in a game that had produced few genuine highlights until India seamer Jasprit Bumrah (6-33) returned the best figures by a visiting bowler in Australia since another West Indies' great Curtly Ambrose's 7-25 on a Perth death bed in 1992-93, Cummins shone like an early evening beacon.
In quieter moments, the 25-year-old will likely concede the manner of his dismissals – all catches taken behind the wicket on the leg side as he fired deliveries into the rib cages of his foes – don't quite measure up to the romance of Lillee rattling Richards's stumps.
Yet that detail mattered not to the crowd of 33,417 that sounded closer to 50,000 as the lion-hearted quick narrowly missed an historic Test hat-trick, with Rohit Sharma's ungainly paddle stroke flying agonisingly wide of Marcus Harris's outstretched right hand at leg-gully.
In some ways, it was a symbolic moment.
For, despite the patriotic roar that accompanied the almost-memorabilia moment, the game was already beyond Australia's clawing grasp, well before Harris hurled himself vainly at the chance.
That's because in the 141 years since Test cricket was born at the MCG, including those years when the historic venue's pitch was much less moribund and maligned, only once had a team successfully chased a fourth innings target in excess of India's then lead – 324.
That team being an England outfit of 1928-29 that featured Jack Hobbs, Herbert Sutcliffe and Walter Hammond.
A more accomplished line-up, to be fair, than the unsettled and inexperienced Australia top-order that once more succumbed to superior bowling by India and was skittled for 151.
A deficit of 292 runs, that was subsequently pushed to 346 as India ended day three 5-54.
Persistent and pealing calls made across the first two days for urgent action to be taken upon the MCG pitch appeared to have brought a response, with the dormant deck replaced by a surface on which no batter could survive, let alone prosper.
Well, no batter wearing the green and gold livery of Australia.
Admittedly, the variations in bounce that had vexed India's diligent top-order across the first two days – when a mere seven wickets fell – were exaggerated under another day of harsh sunlight and heavy foot traffic.
But more pronounced was the glaring contrast in approach between the world's top-ranked Test team and an inexperienced outfit currently ranked number five.
While India's top six batters soaked up an average of 156 deliveries each as they battled the vagaries of the pitch and the dissipating venom of Australia's bowlers, the home team's batting specialists averaged just 41.
That's around 20 additional overs that Australia's weary attack was forced to fire at their foes to chisel out a hard-won wicket, and those bowlers had good reason to feel miffed when forced to haul themselves back to the middle after less than a day's recovery.
The reason for any such ill-humour was not the difficulties encountered against a high quality bowling attack, albeit missing their number-one spinner Ravi Ashwin, on a challenging pitch, but the manner in which those wickets tumbled.
In scenes reminiscent of so many failed missions to Asian venues in recent years, Australia's batters gleaned little from the patience and discipline exercised by their opponents to minimise risk, and instead opted to play their shots.
As if the struggles they had witnessed from India's batters in the days preceding would not apply to them.
Or perhaps they realised they would, and were hoping to grab a few quick runs before the inevitable wicket-ball arrived.
Openers Aaron Finch and Marcus Harris both fell to forcing strokes.
Finch instinctively attempted to punch a half-volley length delivery angled into him from Ishant Sharma through the leg side, only for the ball to check sufficiently in the surface to yield a low catch to the fielder cannily stationed at short mid-on.
Harris, struck a jarring blow to the helmet last night as he failed to evade a Bumrah bouncer, decided the hook shot represented a better form of counter-attack, and the top-edge that resulted floated gently to Ishant at fine leg.
Having looked as comfortable as anyone throughout this Test in breezing to 21 from 32 balls faced – including a bold reverse sweep to the boundary – Usman Khawaja fell in a manner so often seen on subcontinental pitches.
Propping forward to left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja, he underestimated the degree of turn and squeezed a catch to bat-pad, although the fact he was beaten on the inside of the bat was testament to the lessons he's learned in battling spin after previous trials.
Travis Head, Australia's leading scorer of the Domain Series, saw a scoring opportunity when Bumrah tailed one into him from around the wicket but, as he closed the bat face to whip it through mid-wicket he left too little width of wood to intercept his target and the ball instead crashed into his stumps.
It was a similarly ambitious bid to play the ball square of the wicket, rather than employing the full-face, that accounted for Mitchell Marsh who was utterly perplexed at how his attempted leg-side flick to a yorker-length ball from Jadeja ended in the hands of slip.
Perhaps the only member of Australia's top-order, which was scuttled for 102 in less than 45 overs, who could claim to have been done cold by a bowler was Shaun Marsh who was pinned lbw by Bumrah for 19.
But even he could not blame the pitch for his demise, trapped as he was by a cleverly disguised off-break slower-ball that reached him on the full and drifted beneath Marsh's searching bat to strike him on the foot.
The most defiant stand was forged between Paine and Cummins, who defended stoutly for more than 17 overs before the latter – having survived a shout for lbw that was unsuccessfully reviewed – played the wrong line to Mohammad Shami.
And when Paine fell immediately after tea, edging a low catch to his rival keeper Rishabh Pant, the end came quickly if not quite painlessly as Bumrah scythed through the tail and Australia lost 3-4 and all semblance of hope.
Which not even some late-day inspiration from Cummins could resuscitate.
Australia XI: Aaron Finch, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (c), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
India XI: Virat Kohli (c), Ajinkya Rahane, Mayank Agarwal, Hanuma Vihari, Cheteshwar Pujara, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah
Domain Test Series v India
Dec 6-10: India won by 31 runs
Dec 14-18: Australia won by 146 runs
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 3-7: Fourth Test, SCG
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c, wk), Josh Hazlewood (vc), Mitch Marsh (vc), Pat Cummins, Aaron Finch, Peter Handscomb, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon, Shaun Marsh, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Archie Schiller
India squad: Virat Kohli (c), Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, Mayank Agarwal, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari, Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant (wk), Parthiv Patel (wk), Ravi Ashwin, Ravi Jadeja, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar